Jan 30, 2019
(adapted and updated from an article I wrote in Buzz Magazine in 2017 when we were all far more innocent and the world looked much brighter)

Well it’s almost February. High time to write my New Year’s Blog. I trust you have all had all the time you need to fall far short of the resolutions you made. I know I have. I always make resolutions that I simply must break on January 1 so I can get the guilt out of the way and move forward being the same ornery cur I was before I resolved no to be. You need to make absurd resolutions like “I will no longer rely on oxygen” and “I will stop hitting the mute button whenever Trump speaks” – things that you can’t possibly do. It’s so much easier.

The thrust of today’s blog is on people who believe that they want to be an audiobook narrator simply because it sounds easy. The very same folks who want to buy me a cup of coffee in exchange for sharing my skill set and my knowledge of the craft of acting. (If it’s only worth a cup of coffee, it isn’t much of a skill set.)

The current boom in audiobook sales and production has had the happy result that more actors are getting more work. Doors are opening – particularly to actors with home studios. (Producers much prefer you open your own door than darken theirs.)

Let me be clear – note that I keep saying “actor” as opposed to: “everyone in the universe who can speak English out loud and get the words in the right order.” There are no other professions I can think of where pretty much everyone feels that they can do it just as well the professionals. If you meet a neurosurgeon at a party, I bet you don’t say –
“So, you cut into people’s heads eh? Lot of money in that field? Head cutting?
“Really? That much? Hmmm. You know, I actually know – generally – where the head is located and I do believe I have an Exacto knife at home – perhaps I’ll be a neurosurgeon! …I suppose I’ll need a smock or something -yes?”

Yet when people discover that I’ve recorded nearly 800 titles working in almost every genre and won all sorts of swell awards and accolades from folks who are professional swell awards and accolade givers, they are very impressed. Then they discover that I’m reading books out loud for a living and their admiration turns to contempt.

“I can do that!” they shout – or say under their breath like I can’t hear them…even though I’m right there! I mean – c’mon—what am I? Invisible? I have come very close to bashing them in the noggin with one of my swell awards – or at least giving them a nasty paper cut with some certificate of wonderfulness or something.
But I don’t. I just go back to the bar.

The fact is that they can’t. Not everyone can. Because it requires the skill of a story teller – it requires an actor. That doesn’t mean gifted story tellers who happen to work as accountants can’t do audiobooks — it does mean that they must be gifted story tellers.

Here is the what an audiobook actor does: He is conduit for the author’s truth. That’s it. You must share the author’s truth with the listener. Moment to moment, scene by scene. And when you don’t, when your mind wanders or your choices aren’t true, the listener will become detached from the story and you have not done your job.

Audiobooks are generally divided between Fiction and Non-fiction. Those are like giant holding companies and within the companies are thousands of sub-genres and each one requires a slightly different read.
In fiction, one may encounter science fiction, fantasy, adventure, detective/mystery noir, romance, erotica, fables, dramas, comedies, tales for and about youngsters and teens and many more. They may be 1st person or 3rd person or a whole bunch of different persons. A few years ago, a book about “President Donald Trump” would’ve been considered fiction – and bad fiction at that. Today, it’s a non-fiction horror story. See how things can get confusing?

The question I get the most is how to handle character choices in fiction. The simplest answer is to cast the roles. I literally mean that you should list all the characters and write down your impressions of them. Who are they? Who did you see when you pictured them? Surely you had an image in your mind. If this was a film and you were casting, who would get that role? Is it your pervy Uncle Ryan? Your hapless doddering Great Aunt Eunice? Is it Michael Caine?
(Hint: it’s pretty much always Michael Caine.)

The fact is that you know thousands of people – both real people and the many characters that you know from film and television. If you don’t have a name but a description – like this guy is an “oily barrister” or “a feckless oik” (we don’t get to say “feckless” or “oik” all that often so this is a real treat for me!) that should be enough for you to come up with a choice for a voice.
But remember – you aren’t just creating a voice. You are creating a character who, vocally, is distinguishable from the other characters. You can’t just give some guy a gruff voice and consider your work done. Who is he? What is the thinking? What does the text say and what does the subtext tell you? No one you know is a “voice”. Everyone is a person who has a distinct sound in real life and that is just how it must be in audiobook narration.

The single caveat on your imagination and creativity is that you must always be true to the author. If you make a character choice that doesn’t work -that isn’t true to what the author wrote, you will start to mess up on simple words like “cat” and “the” and, perhaps, “I”. Really. You will wonder why you can’t say: “The cat and I are stuck in the loo” and it’s because a choice you made moments before was off.
I’ve only given you a very brief and condensed overview of the audiobook world –hopefully enough to pique your interest and to goad you to come to me to learn more. I can’t tell you everything in this brief article or it would cease to be a brief article.

Just remember the highlights: ACTOR. STORY TELLER. AWARDS. NEUROSURGEON.

Next time – I’ll discuss the AUDIES, APAC and More! Plus – if you have a subject you’d like me to cover or a question you want me to answer – send me a note!

REMINDERS! CAN’T MISS WORKSHOPS ARE COMING UP! (the point here is that you can actually miss them, but you shouldn’t)

REGISTRATION IS OPEN FOR THE NY AUDIOBOOK BUSINESS WORKSHOP  on March 3rd with Scott Brick and me. Have a gander at the agenda and note the producers who are coming and see how you can afford not to go !

REGISTRATION IS OPEN FOR THE 5TH ANNUAL JOHNNY HELLER SPLENDIFEROUS NARRATOR WORKSHOP on May 28th. This is a “don’t miss” event. So…don’t miss it! Sign up today!

And a final note- I am available for coaching and consultation through my website and via Edge Studios at 888-321-3343

Comments (3)

  • Veronica James Reply

    Nice! Well said.

    January 30, 2019 at 10:14 pm
  • Peter LermanLo Reply

    Well said, Johnny. Good work.

    January 31, 2019 at 9:06 am
  • Since 1962 Reply

    In fairness, audiobook narration is not the only profession strangers at parties think they can do with no experience or training. I was a professional talk show host and DJ for many years on satellite radio and I can’t count the number of times some yahoo said “They oughta put ME on the radio! I can talk!”

    January 31, 2019 at 6:14 pm

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *